W C Wood Strike 1959
W.C Wood’ is best known as a manufacturer of freezers. Its founder, Wilbert Copeland Wood (1896 - 1987), relocated from Toronto in 1941, setting up shop on Woolwich Street. During WWII, Wood’s produced parts for aircraft and tails for bombs. After the war, the company went back to manufacturing freezers, adding portable units as well as coolers.
The company moved to Arthur Street in 1955, taking over the old Taylor-Forbes Plant. Between 1955 and 1967, they produced bulk milk coolers and bottle cappers as well as freezers. In addition, using designs of the old T-F Company, they produced wood clamps, clothesline pulleys, barn and home ventilators and oat rollers. John Wood, the eldest son of WC, entered the business full-time in 1964. During this time, the company established what became the industry standard for insulation in freezers – foam. They also produced the first up-right freezer in 1966.
In the 1970s, the focus on the company had shifted away from other appliances to freezers. Growth was essential so, in 1984, Wood bought part of the former Guelph Paper Box property on Huron Street. The company now had a plant stretching from Duke Street to Huron. In that same decade, the company was found guilty of shipping industrial waste via an unlicensed hauler. In the 1990s, the company had between 500 and 900 employees - all non-union. Wood’s also had 4 plants. Three were in Guelph; one was in the United States. However, the later decades were not so kind. In fact, in 2007, Red Diamond bought the company. They shut it down in 2009. The Arthur Street plant is now gone, replaced with ugly condo structures. The original and earliest structures, however, remain. They are now a brewpub operated by the Sleeman family.
The strike began on April 3, 1959. At issue was a collective agreement that recognized seniority, granted an increase in pay, as well as other related items. The company was unwilling to budge, even when the union – United Electrical Workers (UEW) Union was willing to put aside all except seniority protection. W. C. Wood, against the union from the start, set the tone. In 1950, at a Guelph Board of Trade meeting, he told 75 industrialists he was in favour of a legislation change to remove compulsory paying of union dues. Wood specifically referred to the UEW, stating they were “communist dominated” and bargained in bad faith, avowed as they were to “destroy the free enterprise system.”
From the beginning, it was a strike of “us versus them.” Police were involved in the early stages, ensuring that the rights of the company were protected. In two separate incidents, picketers were struck by vehicles leaving the plant, increasing the bitterness between the two opposing factions. Ratcheting up the overall sense of bitterness and mistrust between management and the strikers were the company’s tactics. The company began to employ cameras to intimidate the workers; workers employed mirrors to try to prevent this action. The company claimed cameras were needed to prevent property damage; the union claimed mirrors halted the practice.
Wood continually went to court in an attempt to obtain legal protection for the property and his strikebreakers. This included several legal injunctions against the strikers. The first was on May 11, when Mr. Justice John L. Wilson granted an order preventing picketing on the premises. In frustration, the strikers followed employees of the W.C. Wood Co. on their way to work, or to their homes. Those strikers caught were charged for “besetting.”
Picketing was eventually restored on May 26, but the rules governing picketers was highly restrictive. Only nine were allowed on the premises: four at each main gate and one on the smaller gate. Labour groups in town were watching the events unfold closely. The Guelph Labour Council (GLC) actually urged the City Council to act. This was an unusual measure, since the UEW was not affiliated with the newly amalgamated Labour Council. City Council considered this request, and another from the union. However, it was not until June that any movement in this direction took place. Instead of the GLC or the City Council, the Department of Labour asked for and arranged a meeting, in Toronto, between the two principal parties.
The meeting was an abysmal failure. The Guelph Mercury on June 2, 1959 wrote: “The company refused to agree to return all strikers to their jobs without discrimination, stating that they had stronger obligations to strikebreakers and scabs.” This was how things stood when the Union arranged for a Rally to take place on June 4, a rally to support the workers. Three hundred came to Guelph’s Memorial Gardens to hear the speaker, C. S. Jackson, national president of the union. And still the strike dragged on with no end in sight.
Black Day in July
The strike found some support among various unions. The Steelworkers joined the Wood’s picket lines on June 26. The employees at Canadian General Electric also offered some support. However, in general, Guelphites seemed more focused on the Royal tour of Queen Elizabeth and the election that placed H. Worton in Queen’s Park that June.
In July 1959, the GLC was urging the strikers to go back to work. They refused and, throughout July, a number of violent actions took place on the picket line. A fight broke out at Woods; the striker was charged with assault and fined. Later that month, employee car windows were smashed. However, the major incident occurred on July 9. The windows at Wood’s plant were broken. The company claimed to have suffered over $100,000 in damages.
Police were ordered to remain on site. They were jeered by strikers but no further actions took place. The scene became quiet, abetted by the heavy police presence as well as the ruling permitting only four picketers on the WC Wood property. Charges continued to be laid against the strikers – one receiving a month in jail for his actions against a strike breaker.
August introduced further problems. The workers within the plant filed an application, with the Labour Relations Board to terminate the union. It was to be heard on August 4, 1959. The application was withdrawn, but matters did not improve. Strikers were forced to go on unemployment, or seek other jobs, their numbers dwindling as the need to pay the bills became increasingly pressing.
The strike dragged on into 1960. It no longer rated media coverage. It fell far out of the spotlight. In March 1960, the local paper did mention it, but, by this time, the company had essentially won by using scabs and strikebreakers to carry on business successfully. The union never again gained a foothold in the WC Wood Company workplace. Instead, they put into place a tame labour association.